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Is There an Executive in the House (or Senate)?

The 2008 election poses the greatest possibility in almost 50 years that both major-party presidential tickets will be led by candidates from Capitol Hill. Moreover, for the first time in years, the major issues confronting the country — war and terrorism, the deficit, national preparedness, the environment, health care and the economy — are established priorities in the minds of Americans. Many of these require a president adept at the legislative process and working across government.

The physics of these politics is simple: When national and global issues increase public scrutiny and demands of Washington, D.C., the Senators and Representatives who are the most engaged in finding solutions are viewed by the voters as closest to the issues that define a new course of leadership. Although these same candidates are vulnerable to blame for allowing problems to develop or worsen on their watch, the momentum set in the 2008 elections, so far, is forward looking. Heightened legislative activity, expeditious handling of appropriations to avoid a budget shortfall, bipartisan involvement in oversight hearings, and prioritization of issues show that lawmakers want to keep the pace up.

Does this mean, because the public is leaning on Congress for leadership today, that voter support for presidential candidates from Congress is assured in 2008? Will the fortune of governors who have successfully sought the presidency in four of the past five open-seat elections be reversed?

As every student of American politics knows, just two presidents have been directly elected from the Hill: Sens. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1960 and Warren Harding (R-Ohio) in 1920. However, this modern-day sound bite obscures the larger historical importance that the public has placed on Congressional experience for those seeking the White House.

In fact, 22 presidents have had prior service in Congress. Of these, 13 were elected after a hiatus the Hill. Nine became president after serving as vice president, including five who were elected on their own and four who succeeded to the office because of death or resignation.

Perhaps a more modern barrier that presidential candidates from Congress must overcome is the preference shown by American voters in four of the past five open-seat elections to elect a governor as president.

The issue-driven election in 2006, the pace of the 110th Congress, and the defining issues for 2008 may reduce the “outside the Beltway” advantage that former Govs. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all had in reaching the White House. Yet, the fundamental attraction of former governors to the voters is not just geopolitical.

Governors possess a more important differentiation: Voters want the chief executive to be someone who has been a public chief executive.

After all, governors sit atop an executive branch and head a hierarchical organization from which power flows downward. There are corporate-sounding officials such as comptroller and departments, employees, programs and services.

Even though candidates from Congress see themselves as leaders, why do voters perceive them as leaders who are not executives? Congress is an institution, but it is not an organization. The highest-ranking leaders in Congress wield political authority, but they are not viewed as wielding executive authority.

Finally, when voters start looking at the record of presidential candidates through the lens of executive qualifications, they find the actual executive record of a former governor more assuring than the confusion often surrounding the voting record of a Senator or Representative. That is because legislators function largely as deliberators, not decision makers.

How can a Senator or Representative seeking the White House demonstrate a chief executive style while capitalizing on his or her proximity to the issues that will define the 2008 election? The accompanying chart provides some guidelines.

History appears to favor candidates who have served in Congress more than we recognize. To make modern history, however, presidential candidates who have served in Congress must now demonstrate that they already are taking an executive approach to the issues and leadership that is important to voters now and in 2008.

Former Senate staffer Steven L. Katz is the author of “Lion Taming: Working Successfully with Leaders, Bosses, and other Tough Customers.”

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